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simulations, instruments, and music (very long)
>Sean, are you comfortable playing with a keyboard? Or do you like the
>of how the guitar/midi thing controls it? Those rare times I have felt
>need to record a synth sound (usually I just stack a few delay pedals,
>distortion, and an ebow) I just goofed around on a keyboard untill I
>play the part.
Yeah, I'm a guitarist, but I've played keyboards on
my recordings. (Heck, I've played keyboard solos.
I've even played _better_ keyboard solos than guitar
solos--however, at the time, I had to transpose the
keyboard so I could solo in C :)
>I read in an interview with Andy Summers where he slagged the whole midi
>thing. He said something along the lines of 'If you want to sound like a
>harmonica, learn to play a harmonica'. I think that might be a bit close
>minded, but It has always been easier for me to learn how to play the real
>thing than its emulations.
>I had a drum machine for about three years before I had regular access to
>drum kit- in six months, I was twice as good at the real thing than on
>machine (except for the timing thing- oops!).
Well, "except for the timing thing" is kind of a crucial bit.
After several years of drumming, I certainly couldn't come close
to my drum machines ability to play 32-nd note fills at 144 bpm
in a 13/8 song.
Anyway, I'm not really sure how this connects to the complaint
about MIDI not being expressive enough--I'm not sure
if you're being pro- or con-. However, seeing as I'm
a chromosomally-imperfect individual, when has that
ever stopped me from replying?
Let's see if I can tie this in with the "I'm all
looped-out" thread. I'm gonna get a tiny bit philosophical
here, but I promise it won't be too hoity-toity.
Where to start? It's about _the music_. The point
of the whole show, the point of the technology,
whether pro- or con-, is to make music. No, no,
wait, let me step back just a little further.
It's not good enough to say it's for music. Music
is not just some abstract remote entity. Music is
simply a human endeavor, so the right place to look
is at the underlying motivations of the humans
involved in the process.
At this point, I could say lots of high-fallutin'
things about the nature and purpose of art, but
let's sidestep this with the simple assertion,
"people make music because they enjoy the act".
I admit this may not always be true, but I hope
it is generally true. One of the nice things
about this view is it ignores the distinction
between deeply artistic art and pop culture
production--e.g. "literature vs. romance novels",
"Music-with-a-capital-M vs. top-40 music".
Well, if you buy into the above claim, we can
wrap up the whole anti-/pro- technology thing
right quick: "Do whatever makes you happy, man[*]."
But I'm not ready to wrap it up, so just ignore
([*] please forgive the sexism of this 60's slang)
Is music particularly distinctive from other forms
of artistic endeavor? Probably not; or rather all
of the non-verbal arts (music & visual art) are
probably radically distinguishable from the others.
Interestingly, though, music is still very different from
visual art. For example, both music and books are
basically linear; most visual art is not. Additionally,
music is an "enforced" linear; the listener is
forced to proceed apace, unlike books (although if
you listen to spoken literature, this aspect of the
experience will change).
The most radical difference between the media used
for music and those for other art forms lies in
the very distinctiveness of the process of
listening. (With this rambling assertion we begin
our descent towards the actual content of this mail.)
Can you imagine what it would be like to read a book
if the letters were forced into your eyes no matter
what you were looking at? If you could two books
at once with no difficulty in seeing them (although
presumably only being able to "focus" on one at a
(Really, really, we're descending towards the actual
content... there's a cliff coming up right around
this bend.) Music exploits one of our strangest
sensory apparatuses. Our ears our wired up so that
if two sounds occur at the same time, we can hear
them both no problem. Add in a third and a fourth,
and we are still fine. Compare this to visual art;
while you can layer and blend between two images,
the result is generally unparseable, and three or
four makes it impossible. (There are alternative
things you can do, using opaque splicing, not blending,
but this is no longer very analogous, since it hides
the overlapping portion, which prevents any analogy
for this next bit [ooh, I'm foreshadowing].)
Not only do we hear each of two sounds independently, we
also hear them together, we hear them _harmonically_.
Thus the nature of what music is stems rather strongly
from the nature of what human hearing allows: a sequence
of sounds over time, where value is derived from the
choice of sequence (melody) and the overlapping of
more than one sound at the same time (harmony). Note
that for this definition I haven't distinguished between
pitch and tone, both of which are important, although
we normally use "melody" and "harmony" to refer to
pitches not tones.
Because the medium of "music" allows for layering (for
multiple simultaneous sounds), it is natural to break apart
the layers, and thus to think of most pieces of music as
the "performance" of some number of instruments over a
period of time. Now return to my original assertion about
why people make music. Actually, ignore the assertion, just
remember there's one or more artists behind the music. An
artist wants to create music; in the end, music pops out.
Let's define an "instrument" as a "thing which is used to achieve
the above end". That is to say, forget the musical preconceptions
about "instrument", and look at one of the core meanings:
"a means whereby something is achieved, performed, or furthered"
(from Webster on-line, http://www.m-w.com ).
>From the point of view of a composer writing for an
orchestra, the orchestra itself is a single vast
multi-timbral instrument. Alternatively, it is a
large collection of instruments. From the composer's
point of view, her instruments are "performed" by the
writing of the score, and what happens after that is
somewhat outside her control.
Of course, from the point of view of one of the
orchestra musicians, things are very different (the details
are left as an exercise for the reader). Similar
results obtain for the members of a rock band performing
pre-written music, although it gets a little hairier when
they've written their own songs.
Now, let's take the stereotypical person writing and
recording music and playing all the instruments themselves.
Their ability to play more than one instrument is mediated
by some sort of multi-track recorder technology. If you
think of the instrument as "everything between the performer's
hands (mouth/feet/brainwaves) and the final product", then
where a live guitarist's "instrument" is "guitar-cable-amp-FX-speaker",
the above studio "composer"'s instrument might for example
be "keyboard-FX/box-multitrack tape-mixdown FX". (And I'm
not even factoring in 'warm consoles' and all that other
There's a slightly weird thing in the above--the performer,
at the time of performance, only hears the first half of
the chain, not hearing the effects of multitrack tape or
the mixdown FX. Thus, many people typically pursue the
goal of making their multitracks make as small a change
to the sound as possible. On the other hand, the use of
postprocessing (especially during the mix) is rather strange.
Obviously one can view the person doing the mixdown as a
performer; the _practicality_ of adding effects during
mixdown is clear. Yet I have trouble picturing it being
done to classical orchestral music (especially the widely
recommended compress-the-whole-thing-as-a-unit trick). But,
then again, remember that the classical orchestral _composer_
has to live with having somebody _conduct_ the music in the
end; it's not as odd as it sounds.
So what's my point? My point is that pretty much anything
is a viable instrument. Whether it be a miked acoustic
guitar, a direct bass guitar, an electric guitar through
an amp and a speaker and a microphone and an analog mixing
board and a piece of tape, or even a MIDI guitar controller
controlling a synthesizer--they're all different unique
sounding instruments, yet with remarkably similar "human interfaces".
To return for the briefest moment to the first question
asked above: the act of playing the keyboard, and the act
of playing the guitar, are both radically different. The
natural vocabularies you might find on either of them
are quite different. Andy Summers' dissing of technology
is certainly right in one sense--the best way to sound like
a harmonica player is to be a harmonica player.
But that's merely a diss at all "replicative synthesis technology".
There's little specific about keyboard vs. MIDI guitar there.
Why do people diss MIDI guitarists who play a string pad, but
not keyboardists? A keyboard controls nothing like a real string
section. And it controls nothing like a xylophone either.
Somebody who's grown up only hearing consonant harmony
may find a tritone unacceptably jarring. Many of us,
however, find a tritone to be a tasty and useful dissonance.
Some of us even enjoy the distinctive sound of a tritone
through a lot of distortion. As audiophiles (and I don't
mean in the traditional sense), we've acculturated ourselves
to a lot of things.
And one of the things we're used to is the disctinctive
vocabulary most instruments have. People have evolved
ways to sound "good" on each instrument, and we know them
quite well. But is this "good" really inherent, or simply
Musical equipment manufactures have gone to a fair amount
of effort to create replicative synthesis sound sources--
because that's what they can sell. And when you play those
from a controller without an ear towards the traditional
vocabulary for the instrument it's supposedly replicating...
it hardly sounds like that instrument.
To which I say: so what?
The new instrument is:
MIDI guitar controller-MIDI cable-cheesy organ sound-multitrack
Ideally, like all instruments, this one may have a particular
vocabulary that will sound the best. And it won't necessarily
be the same vocabulary that would be appropriate for a real
cheesy organ, nor that which would be appropriate to a plain guitar.
But what's _wrong_ with simply playing straight guitar
vocabulary into this instrument? People don't complain
much about the fact that the vocabulary doesn't change
when a chorus pedal is added to an electric guitar
"instrument". And everybody lives with unknown-at-performance-time
post-processing. You can picture this scenario as being
"I record an electric guitar, and at post processing
we use the magic effect box that turns it into a cheesy
Now, _you_ may think it sounds bad. But the musician
doesn't. At least, hopefully, the musician is _enjoying_
the process, and really, that's an important step.
Whew... anyway, my point is that I see any and all
technology as valid. All instruments are just an
extension of expression for the performer. If somebody
sits down and strums an open chord on a guitar with
a piano patch _and finds a musical use for it_, or
shreds like Yngwie through a xylophone patch _and
finds a musical use for it_, great! And you know what?
Unlike industry pundits, or Andy Summers or Robert Fripp,
I bet there _are_ musical uses for those performances.
I certainly agree with all those people that it makes
sense to find the "natural vocabulary" for these new
instruments, on one level; and yet I don't hear people
saying this about keyboardists. Is this because keyboardists
don't suffer from this syndrome? Or is it because the
guitar vocabulary is so idiosyncratic?
Wow, this has gone way too long. I wanted to turn this discussion
back to looping, because the looper as an instrument (or really,
the, say, guitar+looper+vortex+speaker as instrument) is
quite interesting and different, since a looper inherently
subsumes aspects of the multitrack. Remember how I said
that since the human ear naturally allows multiple sounds
to be heard at once, it makes sense to break down a given
bit of music into several separate "instruments"... the
looper is neat because of the way it interferes with this
breakdown. But I guess I'll leave y'all to think about
this issue yourselves.